Faces of New China: An Important Private Collection

(Chinese, B. 1962)
Red Boat
signed in Chinese; dated '1993.10.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
181.5 x 249 cm. (71 1/2 x 98 in.)
Painted in 1993
Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong, China
Private Collection, Europe
Private Collection, acquired directly from the above
Christie's Hong Kong, 25 November 2007, Lot 457
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Schoeni Art Gallery Ltd., Faces Behind the Bamboo Curtain: Works by Yue Minjun and Yang Shaobin, exh cat., Hong Kong, China, 1994 (illustrated, p. 19).
Hebei Education Press, Yue Minjun-The Lost Self, Hebei, China, 2005 (illustrated, p. 41).
Sichuan Fine Arts Press, Chinese Oil Painters-Yue Minjun, Chengdu, China, 2006 (illustrated, pp. 20-21).
Hong Kong, China, Schoeni Art Gallery Ltd, Faces Behind the Bamboo Curtain: Works by Yue Minjun and Yang Shaobin, July 1994.

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Lot Essay

Madness & Laughter
Portrait of the Artist & His Friends (Lot 1027) represented a significant turning point for the artist. In it, we can see his increasing interest in using juxtaposed pools of color to elaborate forms. This inclination seems to stem from Chinese visual culture and from Yue's academic training: 'My preference for vibrant colours of folk culture makes my creations more universal, more attractive and hence more accepted by the public. I merely want to articulate a complex issue in a simple but appealing manner." This technique becomes even more prominent as Yue embarked on his iconic Cynical Realist canvases featuring his own repeated self-image.
It is important to note though that Yue's works are full of his own self-image, but that these are not necessarily self-portraits in any conventional sense. Yue reduces his own likeness to its most essential elements: casual slacks, unadorned shirt, and the unmistakable bald head, its face knotted into an ecstatic laugh. In repetition, it becomes clear that the image is not a portrait of Yue, but in repetition becomes a kind of everyman, a means via which Yue can portray a contemporary reality or situation. In early works, these repeated forms were clearly invoking images of military reviews, public spectacles, or parades. These were not necessarily military critiques, but the composition suggested a particular social dynamic, one in which individuals are compelled to submit to an authority. As such, as Yue moved away from searching portraits of his generation and, literally, his friends, he shifted instead towards a portrait of an entire social world.
Superficial, surface realities and their distortions are key to Yue's practices. Throughout his career, the laughing figure is exaggerated to such an extent that it becomes clear that the hilarity verges on a kind of madness, its source unrelated to the reality of the circumstances. As such, Yue's central practice represents a reversal of the philosophical ideal of his forebearers; rather than representing man in harmony with his environment, he portrays his alienation, as a ferocious mockery of that fallen ideal. Yue has in fact elsewhere suggested that his laughing figures are reminiscent of the famous eccentrics of Chinese ink painting, artist-scholars who, feeling themselves unwilling to or incapable of fulfilling their scholarly duties to the imperial court, adopted eccentric personalities and styles to survive.
Red Boats (Lot 1028) from 1993 upends Yue's early military-style line-up; he lays his figures across a boat set out to sea. They nonetheless remain in lockstep, each figure's head turned as if still in mid-drill salute. The range of Yue's is reduced, the water articulated in juxtaposed pools of cerulean and indigo blue. The figures' clothes, too, although in neutral gray and khaki colors, are articulated in limpid pools, suggesting the soft pleats and folds of their "uniforms". Their form is contrasted against the bold red of the small row boat, and the overall effect is at once vibrant and sensual, as the viewer's eyes take in the variety of colors and pleasures in the palette and composition.
Water was often an important symbolic motif for painters in the 1990s. For artists like Fang Lijun, it symbolized the paradox of freedom - feelings of escape coupled with feelings of existential dread. In art history as in bourgeois life, there are few things more idealized than the privilege of a leisurely boat ride (Fig. 1). In Red Boats, the visual pleasure enjoyed by the viewer is a corollary to this idealized experience, but the joy of this leisurely outing is undermined by the figure's ridiculous ignorance of their setting. The blues of the water suggest a gentle splash, as if this boat has just launched. In this rudimentary boat, apparently lacking udder, oars, or captain, the figures appear, if not put out to sea (as if abandoned), then certainly lost.
"I paint people laughing, whether it is a big laugh, a restrained laugh, a crazy-laugh, a near-death laugh or simply laughter about our society: laughter can be about anything. Laughter is a moment when our mind refuses to reason. When we are puzzled by certain things, our mind simply doesn't want to struggle, or perhaps we don't know how to think, therefore we just want to forget it. The 90's is the time when everyone should laugh." - Yue Minjun
Yue's laughing figures, his off-kilter, surrealistic compositions and dynamic palette draw the viewer into the sensual qualities and technical bravura of his practice. But the laughter of these scenes is always blurred, and the hilarity seems increasingly out of place in circumstances that are revealed in fact to be more complex than thought at first glance. As such, Red Boats is the answer to the Portrait of the Artist & His Friends from 1991; the individual figures have transformed. No longer full of hope and embarking on an adventure of unknown destination, they have become automatons, gleefully ignorant of their seemingly dire circumstances.
As Yue continued to develop this central motif, his figures were not always placed in recognizable contemporary worlds but instead in compositions drawn from art history; his figures, too, became not only stand-ins for a generalized population, but for inanimate and non-human forms as well, a development that greatly deepened and sharpened his core critique.

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